From SU London student Alyssa Elias’ blog.
Now that spring break is over, I have one more overnight trip left for the rest of my study abroad experience. I’m going to Paris through SU, a carefully planned, guided tour. It’s much easier to give a credit card number and have everything planned for you. I would know because every trip I’ve been on so far has been planned by my friends and me.
I now have some advice for those of you planning to study abroad in the future. This is a step-by-step guide to help you overcome the anxiety associated with planning weekend getaways.
WORK AROUND SCHOOL FIELD TRIPS
Although it may seem like it, us study abroaders don’t leave the UK every weekend. It drains you both mentally and financially. That’s why before I planned a single trip, I wrote down the date of every single day trip I wanted to go on through SU. Most only require a £1o deposit, which you get back when you show up the day of the trip.
It’s important to see the rest of England, even if it’s just a walking tour in the area around Faraday House. When my professors make historical references in class, I can proudly say I’ve seen some of the sites that were involved. Through SU I’ve been to Stonehenge, Salisbury, Oxford and Blenheim Palace. I’ve also gotten free entry to pricey tourist attractions, like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey.
If there’s one weekend you don’t want to miss, it’s Love London Weekend. Unless you plan to go with family later in the semester, wait in the long lines and sign up. It’s an unbeatable deal.
By eliminating certain dates, you’re able to narrow down the weekends that you’ll travel.
SPACE OUT TRAVEL WEEKENDS
Not once, but foolishly, twice, I traveled two weekends in a row. After my flight cancellation in Prague and illness to boot, the last thing I wanted to do was get back on a plane three days later to fly to Madrid.
In terms of school, you’ll worry more about having the time to pack than to pay attention in class. In terms of time to rest, well, you won’t have any. In other words, don’t travel two weekends in a row.
This narrows down your possibly dates even further. Keep in mind when spring break is coming about, because midterms are generally right before. I would highly suggest avoiding any travel the weekend before midterms, so that once they’re over, you can pack up and jet off to a week’s worth of new experiences.
SIT DOWN AND HAVE A CONVERSATION
One of the most stressful aspects of planning a trip is figuring out where to go. That old saying “you can’t please everyone” comes into play here. My roommates, for example, did not want to go to the same places as me. Therefore, we figured out that we would have to find other travel companions.
Some weekends, you may travel with your best friends and others, acquaintances from class. It all depends on where you want to go. You don’t have to travel with your best friends and if it’s spring break, it’s probably better not to, since you’ll be spending every waking minute together. However, don’t travel with people you don’t know well because when it rains, it pours–you need to be able to trust them if something goes wrong.
The best advice I can give in this instance is communication. No plans will get made unless you sit down with your friends and take one night to plan out at least one trip. The first one is always the hardest, but if you take a few hours and lay out your calendars and your expected budgets, things quickly come together.
You have to be on the same exact page or reservations will get screwed up. We had a miscommunication over a hostel in Amsterdam and two of us ended up spending a night in a different room than our friends. It’s going to happen, so meeting together in person is the best way to avoid mistakes.
BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT PRICES AND WEBSITES
I was given quite a few websites to help me price out flights. The first is Kayak. I found that a lot of the fares are inaccurate, so if you see something appealing, double check it on the airline’s website. Another service is Last Minute. If you’re into hearing the catchy slogans in your head for a while, there’s also Expedia and Orbitz.
While I used these sites to gauge prices, I only booked one flight through Expedia. They often take commission, so the best way to book a flight is directly through the airline’s website.
The best time to leave is generally around 7:30, which will give you a full day at your destination, especially if you have class on Thursdays and need to leave on Friday morning. If you have class Thursday and plan to leave, know that you’re going to have to have all of your belongings packed in advance.
Just remember, the Tube stops running at midnight and if you’re taking a discount airline, you’re most likely to be delayed. Although taking the last flight out is cheapest, it’s not worth it in terms of the hassle of getting back and the fact that you’re not going to make your Monday classes if it’s cancelled. The best time to come back is generally mid-Sunday afternoon.
PAY ATTENTION TO AIRLINES
As some of you may know, I have a serious vendetta against EasyJet after they cancelled my flight back from Prague. However, there are some good aspects to the airline:
- Flies to many desirable destinations
- Checked baggage allowances don’t have terribly outrageous weight limits at 20 kilos
- Doesn’t weigh your carry-on
Here’s the bad part: it’s a discount airline, so they’re understaffed and don’t have representatives at every airport. Their fleet seems to constantly have “technical problems” and many of their flights get delayed. Their customer service is practically nonexistent, so good luck getting through to them. You must consolidate every carry-on item, including your purse, into one bag that fits their requirements. Obviously, you shouldn’t plan on a free Diet Coke. You pay for what you get.
I flew Vueling, which was operated by Iberia Airlines, while I was in Spain. I loved it. Their checked baggage allowances are reasonable, as well as their allowance of a carry-on item and a purse. They were a pleasure to deal with.
Then, I flew RyanAir. You will hear about it while you’re abroad. They are the most discounted of all discount airlines. Our perfectly on time flight from Sevilla to Barcelona (Girona) was £12.
But wait, was it really? No! Add in taxes, then add in the fact that your carry-on must be under 10 kilos, including a purse. If you’re checking baggage, it must be under 15 kilos. These are very low weight limits! They find every way to charge you that they can.
RyanAir also tends to fly to out-of-the-way airports, so weigh if the time spent getting to your destination after you disembark off the plane is really worth it. They also get on the intercom and try to sell everything from coffee to cigarettes to perfumes just about every 10 minutes.
What anyone flying RyanAir needs to know is that you must get a stamp on your boarding pass at the service desk before you can proceed to the gate. As a non EU citizen, they need to see your passport for who knows what reason. I had friends who lost money on an entire weekend in Dublin because they didn’t get the stamp and weren’t allowed to board their plane.
FULLY CHECK THE HOSTELS OUT
Hostal El Pilar in Madrid was the ideal hostel situation–private room, private bathroom
For hostels, check Hostel World and read every single comment before you book anything. Google the hostel you’re considering and see what else comes up. If the rating is below 80%, as a rule of thumb, you probably shouldn’t stay there.
Hostels have their own culture in Europe. Backpacker hostels, like the Flying Pig in Amsterdam, cater to people backpacking Europe on the cheap and have the most bare of bare minimums. If you don’t know, that means you have to rent sheets and towels and your toilet may be used by 20 other people.
I’m not someone who’s into sharing a room with strangers. When booking a hostel, I looked for the words “private” and “ensuite.” This means it’s like a hotel room because it will be shared by you and your travel companions and the bathroom is in the room. For around €22 we got our own room and bathroom in our hostel in Seville and for a similar price, we got similar accommodations in Madrid.
Lastly, be aware when you get recommendations from other people. Check them out and see where they’re located before booking. While someone else may have loved the hostel, it may not be your cup of tea.
As I said before, getting to the airport can be a hassle if the Tube isn’t open. So planning ahead is important. Using the TFL website, you can plan out which buses you need to take if you’re going to Victoria or King’s Cross/St. Pancras stations in the early morning hours.
Remember, cheaper isn’t always better. Getting to the airport costs money, even if you’re taking the Picadilly line to Heathrow. Since you’re going into a different zone, you have to pay a bit extra.
To get to Gatwick, the cheapest option is to take the National Express coach from Victoria Coach Station. The journey, however, is a bit long at 1 hour, 20 minutes. If you’re in it for the convenience, at £16.50/way, the Gatwick Express train from Victoria Rail Station takes 30 minutes. I’ve ridden the Gatwick Express twice and it has been a pleasure, but it’s a bit expensive if you fly into and out of the airport often. Buy your tickets online to save money!
Luton Airport is a lot smaller than Gatwick and is a bit further away. It is easily accessible by train from St. Pancras Station and is cheaper than the Gatwick Express at around £11.60/way. If you have the time to burn on transport to Luton, EasyBus is a cheaper option. Coming back, it drops you off at Baker Street, which is a convenient option.
I’ve never flown into or out of Standsted Airport, but I’ve heard it’s generally very far away and not worth the trip. I also haven’t flown into or out of London City Airport, which seems reserved for business.
The biggest tip I can give is if you’re booking a train ticket, book round trip, since you can use the return fare at any point. For bus tickets, only book one way. If your flight gets cancelled, you may not be able to get money back for your bus ticket back into central London. You’ll be able to purchase the return ticket at the airport.
When you’re looking at your destination, know how you’re getting from the airport to your hostel. Cities like Amsterdam and Madrid have public transport directly into the city from the airport. You’re going to be tired from traveling and you’re going to want to check into your hostel right away.
PICKING SIGHTS TO SEE
This aspect of planning a trip is really dependent on the type of person you are. A fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants type person will get to their destination and pick what they want to do then. I’m not one of these people. I read guide books, like Let’s Go Europe, ahead of time and picked out what I wanted to see.
While you don’t have to plan out what you’re doing down to the last minute, it’s good to have an idea of what you want to see on each day. Factor in the time it will take to get to the hostel on the first day and the time it will take to get to the airport on the last day. Although three days may not seem like a lot, in some places, it’s plenty.
Look for Sandeman’s Free Walking Tours because in just a few hours, you’ll get to see most major sights in a city. Before you let the tour guides convince you to do a paying tour or a bar crawl, just remember that they get commission. They’re told to tell you to do these activities because they benefit. Before you agree to anything, consult any guide books or if you have internet access, the web to see what’s recommended.
While our guide in Prague told us to do the paid castle tour, my friend and I were wary of his pushiness. He told us “you see one castle and you’ve seen ‘em all,” which turned out not to be true. We were lucky we didn’t listen to him. The tickets were only about $6 to see the castle, cathedral and basilica.
YOU HAVE STUDENT STATUS, SO USE IT
One of the best money saving devices is the international student ID card. Flash this baby in most museums and tourist attractions and you’ll get in with a discount. At the Alcázar in Seville, we got into the palace for free because we’re students. It will increase the amount of activities you can do, since you’re saving at each one.
Do not bring this as your only form of identification. This will get you into trouble. Bring a driver’s license wherever you go, especially if you’re planning to go out at night. Clubs, especially in London, want to see proof of your age from a government document. A passport is so valuable, taking it out with you puts your ability to get back into the UK and even the US in jeopardy.